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A comprehensive analysis of the 2016 Patriots defensive strengths and shortcomings

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The Patriots need to make three major changes over the second half of the season.

The New England Patriots currently rank 3rd in the NFL in points allowed per game, with 16.5. They trail the Vikings (14.0) and Seahawks (15.6), and barely edge out the Eagles (16.7) and Broncos (17.0).

The story is pretty much the same when you look at per-drive rates. The Vikings (1.316 points allowed per drive), Cardinals (1.337), and Seahawks (1.380) are ahead of the Patriots (1.385), while the Eagles (1.442) and Broncos (1.449) are close behind.

As far as defenses go, the 2016 Patriots have been more successful than their 2015 counterparts, and you have to go back to the elite Patriots defenses of 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007 to find its peers.

This Patriots team, despite its early successes, is not very different from the teams of the past five years; the offense is consistently top 3 in the NFL, while the defense is hovering in the top 10. It’s a team that is likely to make its way to the final four and a series of coin flips called “championship games” will determine whether or not we consider this team a success.

We can point to the questionable cadre of quarterbacks that the Patriots have faced thus far as justification for the defensive success. The Browns and Steelers were forced to play back-ups due to injury, while Cardinals QB Carson Palmer, Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, Texans QB Brock Osweiler, and Bills QB Tyrod Taylor all rank 20th or worse in passer rating this year.

Bengals QB Andy Dalton is arguably the only quality quarterback the Patriots have faced this year (don’t let Bill Belichick see me write that), and he started 17 of 21 for 201 yards and a touchdown before the New England defense figured out what they were doing.

And that’s kind of been the story of the Patriots defense this year. They put together two strong quarters per game- other than the Texans shutout- and look like a junior varsity team the rest of the game (more on this later). Belichick might be able to stomach an average defense if they were consistently average on a quarter-to-quarter basis, but inconsistency is probably second only to turnovers in terms of what is unacceptable to the head coach.

The edge defenders have been underwhelming. Chris Long is very good against the run- teams average 3.30 yards per carry when Long is playing, versus 4.98 yards per carry when Long is sidelined- but outside of generating “hurries” he hasn’t been getting the quarterback, with four of his five QB hits coming in the first two games of the year.

Jabaal Sheard has been good this year, but he hasn’t turned the corner than many expected after his brilliant 2015 campaign. Trey Flowers has hit the quarterback in all but two games this season, but he remains in a very minor role with his snaps getting cut in half since the return of Rob Ninkovich.

Ninkovich and Shea McClellin have played the strongside linebacker role in the defense and they’ve both struggled against the run. I’d feel pretty confident in drawing a line between their performances and the acquisition of Lions LB Kyle Van Noy.

The defensive tackles have been great, but overworked, this year. Alan Branch is playing better than ever and Malcom Brown is the team’s best run defender for the second straight season. But Branch has exceeded 50% of the defensive snaps every game this year, after reaching that mark just twice in 2015. Brown is equally overworked.

Hopefully the returned health of Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton can reduce the load on Branch and Brown, because this has been the most consistent unit on the defense.

The linebackers have been up-and-down all year, with Dont’a Hightower missing time with an injury, and then Jamie Collins missing time of his own. Jonathan Freeny is done for the year after tearing both of his shoulders, and now rookie Elandon Roberts has been thrown in the deep end after the Collins trade.

Roberts has been the best run defending linebacker, while Hightower has been the most impactful against the pass due to his pass rushing ability. However, a lot of institutional knowledge walked out the door with Collins as the top two back-ups Barkevious Mingo and Van Noy have been with the team for a combined 2 months.

The concerns come in coverage, where the Patriots are much worse than against the run and where Collins was the best on the team. Will the Patriots ask Ninkovich, McClellin, Long, or Van Noy to drop into coverage? Will Mingo take over for Collins? That remains to be seen.

And the secondary have had their struggles, too, although three of the four starters appear to be turning a corner. Malcolm Butler has been lights out in recent weeks and is playing at an All Pro level (albeit against terrible quarterbacks), Patrick Chung finally looks healthy and is dominating with his versatility, and Devin McCourty is making plays all over the field; McCourty is playing with some serious fire in his heart and I like it. Duron Harmon has been his normal consistent and pretty good self.

But the #2 cornerback spot is very rocky. Logan Ryan has been benched in favor of Eric Rowe the past two weeks- although Ryan appeared to get his job back late against the Bills. Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones have been scratches in recent weeks.

The Patriots ranked 5th in run defense DVOA, but an ugly 25th in pass defense DVOA- a stat that compares a team’s production to the league average- prior to facing the Bills. It’s the carousel in the secondary and the defense’s inability to generate meaningful pressure that declaws the defense and undermines any argument that the unit is actually one of the best in the league.

And for this, I point to the coaching staff.

Whether it’s head coach Bill Belichick or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia calling the shots, someone needs to inject some creativity into the defense. Last week we noted that the Patriots were “holding back” in order to save plays for more important games down the road. The Collins trade implies a deeper problem and points to a defense not holding back, but one that needed to be shaken to its core.

Earlier I wrote about the Patriots playing good football for two quarters. The Patriots have allowed opposing quarterbacks to post ratings of 98.9 and 91.7 in the first and third quarters, versus 83.1 and 81.5 in the second and fourth quarters. This means quarterbacks fluctuate from looking like Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers to Blake Bortles and Case Keenum on a quarter-to-quarter basis.

Now this points to some great mid-game adjustments by the coaching staff. The numbers are also inflated a bit as the Patriots have dropped into soft coverages after picking up big leads to try and drain the clock.

But this also means that other teams have a really good idea of how the Patriots are going to defend the pass in the first and third quarters and have been able to take advantage of their opportunities.

Quickly, how do the Patriots defend mobile quarterbacks? Send four to squeeze the pocket and contain the quarterback; disguise zone coverage with man to further fluster the quarterback.

How about defending a young quarterback? Simple- stack the box early to remove the run game and challenge them to throw; then drop seven or eight into coverage to try and take advantage of the inevitable errant passes.

We see the Broncos and Seahawks and Vikings and Eagles take the field with their defenses and watch them dictate the game with their pass rush complementing their secondary. The Patriots defense seems to react, instead of dictate, and there’s no pass rush in sight.

The problem is that everybody knows what is coming. If the quarterback can get into a rhythm, the Patriots are slow to adjust. But the obvious counter to this complaint is that the Patriots are 7-1, so clearly it’s working.

I went back and watched the Patriots defense from 2015 and there isn’t a meaningful difference in play calling from 2016. Patricia is calling the same plays he was calling last year. I just noticed three main differences.

1. The 2015 Patriots were much better at getting off their blocks to get after the quarterback. Last year, Jones and Sheard and Dominique Easley were all excellent at using their hands to fight through the block. This year, it seems like the defensive linemen are stopped in their tracks whenever the offensive lineman gets a good block. There’s no second move to shed the blocker; the pass rusher is just stood up.

I think the players need to be more active with their hand fighting- perhaps Trey Flowers deserves more time on the field because of this- and with their second effort. And if not, then the coaching staff needs to find a way to draw up pressure from other angles because the players aren’t getting it done right now.

2. The Patriots are getting hit with more penalties that give up automatic first downs. The Patriots have given up 16 first downs via penalty while on defense- they were penalized for just 22 first downs in the entirety of 2015 (the offense has also seen 17 drives stall due to penalties, versus 25 in 2015. The defense isn’t alone here).

Sure, the 2014 defense gave up 45 automatic first downs by penalty, but they played with a swagger that allowed the shortcomings- no one questioned if the defense could step up when called upon.

3. The 2015 Patriots also defense played with a lot more emotion. Whenever a defender made a play, Chandler Jones would be the first player running up to celebrate after a play, followed closely by Patrick Chung. Jamie Collins wanted to tackle through the ball carrier. Malcolm Butler wanted to strut after every defended pass. These players fed off each other’s energy and you could see it on crucial third downs.

This year, you’ll see teammates will walk away from a player that makes a big stop. Here’s Patrick Chung making a great tackle on 3rd and 4 in the first quarter against the Bills.

Nothing. No reaction. Players just standing around. Chris Long runs right off the field. The defense is flat and Belichick hates this lack of emotion. Belichick wants defenders to celebrate because it sends a message to the opposing team that you’re going to make it miserable for them for 60 minutes.

“There’s nothing wrong, in fact you should be excited when you make a play,” Belichick said to his team in his A Football Life special. “Hell, look at all the work you put into it. All the time that you’ve spent in practice of putting into it. And to go out there in a game, competitively, and execute it well and make a play, you should be excited about it. And your teammates should be excited, too.

“So you watch the tape here and you see when we’re playing with energy and when we’re playing with emotion, and when we’re not. Nice hit, [DT Ty Warren]. Can’t even see one guy saying, ‘Good hit.’ Walk back to the huddle and it looks like we don’t even care.

“We aren’t good enough to play that way. I don’t know that anybody is. That’s it [LB Gary Guyton], you know it’s a good play. Just doesn’t really register with anybody else.”

The Patriots need Hightower and McCourty and Chung to swarm the defender that makes a big play. Enthusiasm is contagious.

So while we can ask the coaching staff to come up with additional schemes to mask the defensive shortcomings, most of the problems come from the players themselves. The defensive linemen aren’t beating their blocks in the passing game, forcing defensive backs to cover longer. The defenders are drawing penalties that yield automatic first downs. This has to change.

But the defense is not much different from prior years. They will continue to change the game plan based upon the opposing quarterback and they will continue to make midgame adjustments.

We highlight the Patriots match-up offense and commend their ability to adjust and attack the weaknesses of opposing defenses. We don’t give the defense any praise for taking the same match-up approach.

The Patriots defense is currently 3rd in the NFL in points allowed per game. There’s half a season of football left. There is plenty of time and room for improvement.